As the two sides gear up for the fraught negotiations about to ensue, the unreality is this: The EU seems unable to grasp the nature of Brexit; the U.K. seems unable to grasp the price it has paid to get it.
[...]The problem is the apparent hands-over-the-eyes failure of either side to accept that the world has changed since Britain left the EU on January 31.
London appears to be denying the reality of the price it has already paid to extricate itself from the EU’s legal order: de facto border controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (both sovereign parts of the United Kingdom). Brussels, in return, appears to be denying the reality of Brexit altogether—that Britain has decided to leave the EU’s legal order, regardless of the economic costs. So far, Brussels’s position is as straightforward as it is unacceptable to London: The price of a new trading relationship is the U.K. abiding by some EU standards, set by the EU and enforced by the EU’s court in perpetuity.
As the two sides gear up for the fraught negotiations about to ensue, the unreality is this: The EU seems unable to grasp the nature of Brexit; the U.K. seems unable to grasp the price it has paid to get it. The consequences could be a far more profound rupture than either wants or is necessary—and, for London, a far more difficult relationship with Northern Ireland (let alone Scotland).[...]
What has complicated the whole endeavor is that the U.K. is not a normal nation-state, but itself a union of nations. One of those—Northern Ireland—cannot even agree on whether it is a nation or not, and sits not on the island of Britain, but on the island of Ireland, sharing a land border with the Republic of Ireland, a separate country and EU member state, to the south.
If it weren’t for Northern Ireland, as Angela Merkel is alleged to have told Boris Johnson, Brexit would be more straightforward. But Northern Ireland does exist, and will remain a sovereign part of the U.K.—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—until a majority of its population chooses otherwise. [...]
Fast-forward to today and Johnson’s problem is that having paid this significant price to maximize mainland Britain’s freedom from EU jurisdiction, he is refusing to accept that the harder he pursues this freedom, the firmer the divide will be with Northern Ireland. Matthew O’Toole, a former Downing Street official who is now a member of the Northern Ireland assembly, told me the choice for London was clear: “If the U.K. is serious about wanting to diverge entirely from EU rules, that means checks on goods as they cross the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland.”
Johnson’s other problem—more politically pressing than the first, given that Northern Ireland’s plight has not provoked much sympathy among British voters—is that having agreed to a price for the U.K.’s freedom, the EU, from London’s perspective, has now increased the cost, and said that any future trading relationship must be based on EU law. This is the EU as the famed Hotel California: You can check out, but you can never leave.
Sam Lowe, a senior research fellow at the the Centre for European Reform think tank, told me that, at its core, the EU did not accept that its negotiation with Britain was one between equals. He said the EU was “trying to use its economic weight to impose conditions on the U.K. it wouldn't normally ask of others.” Canada and Japan both have similar trade agreements to the one the U.K. is asking for, but Brussels has not required those countries to accept the supremacy of EU law. The economic reality for Britain, though, is that the EU is the regional hegemon, and this is how it behaves with countries on its periphery.
Raoul Ruparel, who advised May on Brexit, said the logic worked both ways. "There are elements of denial in the opening positions of both sides,” he told me. “The EU seems unable to accept that the U.K. will no longer be part of its legal and regulatory order [but] the U.K. doesn't yet seem to have fully accepted the trade-offs that will need to be made to secure a deal in such short order."
The truth that dare not speak its name is that while Brexit was—and is—about taking back control, Britain ceded total control of Northern Ireland to do so, and the EU lost control of Britain in the process.
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